When I think of Persephone books I think of titles like 'Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day' or 'Miss Buncle's Book' but really that's only a very small part of what they do. Persephone also excel at finding unexpectedly dark and thought provoking books; Dorothy B. Hughes 'The Expendable Man' is one of the best thrillers I've ever read, it's shocking and brilliant. 'Harriet' is that kind of Persephone, I finished it a week or more ago but it's still haunting me - 'The Tortoise and the Hare' is meant to be Jenkins masterpiece but I would be prepared to debate that now.
'Harriet' is based on the once notorious Penge mystery - although when I googled it I found very little that wasn’t related to this book. In 1874 the 33 year old Harriet became engaged to a Louis Staunton, a hard up auctioneer’s clerk. She had what we would describe now as learning difficulties, Jenkins makes these quite severe, but Harriet was lucky to have a loving mother and plenty of her own money so life was on the whole a pleasant round of shopping and visiting within the extended family. It’s on a visit to some distant and hard up, cousins that Harriet met Louis. Despite her mother’s efforts to stop the marriage it goes ahead, which leads to a total estrangement between the two women based on Louis’ insistence. After Harriet has a child Louis removes her to Kent and the house of his brother and sister-in-law. He himself starts to live with Alice (his brother’s wife’s younger sister) in a neighbouring house. Within two years of her marriage Harriet and her child are dead.
|Only known photograph of Harriet Staunton|
It’s a curious book to read, Jenkins changes the surnames and Louis to Lewis but that seems to be all. The book was written in 1934, the same year that Louis Staunton died, the children he had with his third wife, the children of Patrick and Elizabeth Staunton – any of them might have read this reworking of their parents crimes and although right at the end Jenkins leaves us with the slight possibility that the Staunton’s might not have been guilty of premeditated murder by starvation everything that precedes suggests that they are. Perhaps because it’s based on fact there’s a hard to define something about the tone of the book as well, it’s not quite journalistic, rather more like a play with instructions regarding motivation, but not quite like a novel – the result is compelling, and really doesn’t feel like fiction at all.
Jenkins paints a horrific portrait of Harriet’s fate, she’s incarcerated in an attic, her cloths removed and given to her husband’s mistress to pick over, she is steadily terrorised, starved, and probably beaten, she becomes filthy and lice infested steadily losing the outward trappings of humanity. She must have watched as her child wastes away until he’s taken away from her hours before he dies, and then finally she too is at deaths door whilst all the time Patrick, Lewis, Elizabeth, and Alice watch on, their own lives made comfortable by her money.
For those four Harriet is a resource to be exploited, less than human, incapable of feeling as they do, undeserving of the good things in life when they have had to struggle, and finally an inconvenience to be disposed of but their own relationships also bear inspection. Lewis and Patrick Oman have an intensely close relationship; Patrick worships his brother to the extent that he’s prepared to do anything for him without question, Alice is infatuated by Lewis too which suggests he has a certain charisma, but it’s the relationship between Patrick and Elizabeth that disturbs me. Elizabeth is totally submissive to her husband’s will; his temper is violent and unpredictable and we would now consider Elizabeth to be an abused wife. The death of Harriet’s baby isn’t really discussed much in the book, so was presumably not a major factor in the trial either, and whilst I suppose that attitudes to child mortality were rather more resigned in the 19th century it’s still hard to understand how Elizabeth as an apparently loving mother can reconcile herself to the babies fate.
There is one particularly shocking scene where Patrick wrenches the child from Harriet to baptize it. Jenkins makes his actions violent but Elizabeth hardly reacts. It’s one of the pivotal moments in the narrative – the power of the book is in the way that for most of the time it’s quite possible to follow the Oman’s reasoning – Harriet is to them sub human, she cannot feel as they do, and then of course they are so poor, always hungry; is it fair she has so much when they have so little? Violence is implicitly suggested but rarely explicit, so when for example we find Alice remodelling Harriet’s cloths for herself and wearing her jewellery it takes a moment to absorb the full implications of what’s happening. These are the points in the books where Harriet’s eventual fate is made clear, and where I also think Jenkins makes it clear that she believes that the Staunton’s were guilty of murder.
‘Harriet’ isn’t always an easy book to read but it’s rewarding and an effective way to challenge your own prejudices. It’s a simple thing to be impatient with those not quite like us, harder to question that reaction. This is a book that shakes your complacency and sticks with you for a long time. Highly recommended.